Throughout the poem, Lorde uses interesting examples of imagery in addition to figurative language in order to create a calm and peaceful scene. The poet’s speaker addresses a listener, someone she hopes will come to her and to whom she can speak across the years.
Explore If You Come Softly
This poem is filled with compelling lines that will likely suggest different interpretations to different readers. The speaker begins by addressing her listener, telling them that if they come to her lightly and silently, that she will sit with and speak to them. It appears that the speaker is trying to communicate with this person, but it’s not an easy task. Through allusion, she suggests there is more separating them than it seems.
You can read the full poem here.
Lorde engages with themes of nature and relationships in ‘If You Come Softly.’ Depending on how one reads the poem, the second theme will stand out as one or another. Is this listener the speaker’s lover? Or someone she’s lost in the past, a family member or friend? She wants to communicate with this person, no matter who they are. She uses nature images in order to depict the kind of time she wants to spend with this person and the nature of what she has to say.
Structure and Form
‘If You Come Softly’ by Audre Lorde is a five-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABCB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. This pattern is enhanced by Lorde’s scattered use of half-rhyme. This technique refers to the moments in which words partially rhyme but aren’t as complete or “perfect” as full rhymes. For example, “lightly” and “gladly” in lines one and three of the second stanza. These words can also be connected to “softly” at the end of the first line of the poem.
Lorde makes use of several literary devices in ‘If You Come Softly.’ These include but are not limited to enjambment, similes, and alliteration. The first of these is a common formal device that occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point—for example, the transitions between the first three lines and the fourth line of the first stanza. Readers have to go down to the next line to understand how the previous concluded.
Alliteration is a type of repetition that occurs when the poet uses the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. These usually come in succession. For example, “hear” appears twice in the third line of the first stanza, and “sit” and “Silently” in lines one and two of stanza three.
Similes are comparisons between two things that are dissimilar. These are created through the use of “like” or “as.” For example, in the third stanza, when the speaker describes the listener sitting beside them, “Silent as a breath.”
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
If you come as softly
See what sorrow sees.
In the first stanza of ‘If You Come Softly,’ the speaker begins with the line that later came to be used as the title of the poem. Versions of this line, using different words, appear in other parts of the poem. She directs her words to a listener, someone who goes unnamed and is not completely defined throughout the poem. She tells this person that if they go softly through the trees, just as the wind does, then they might hear what she hears and “See what sorrow sees.” These first lines are all about experiencing the world in a different way. Lorde encourages the listener to take their time navigating the world and try to understand what she’s sharing.
If you come as lightly
Nor ask more of you.
In the second stanza, she uses parallelism to repeat a similar sounding line. This time, she suggests that the speaker “Come as lightly / As threading dew.” If they do so, then the speaker will “take” them and “ask” nothing else of them. This is an interesting metaphor one that suggests that the speaker wants her listener to make a simple advance into her life, or into a certain state of mind, where she’ll then meet them.
You may sit beside me
Shall remember death.
There, in this new place, the metaphorical woods, the listener can sit beside the speaker and think about death. She makes a statement about the dead and how only those who stay that way “Shall remember death.” This suggests that this place might, in fact, be the afterlife or that the person she’s calling to has already passed away. This seems to be supported by the speaker’s emphasis on quiet, smooth, and peaceful movements.
And if you come I will be silent
Or how, or what you do.
If this person comes to her, then she’ll be “silent,” something she seems to think that they want. She won’t speak harshly or ask “why now” or “how, or what you do.” She won’t challenge this person to reveal anything about themselves or how they spend their time. Depending on how one reads the lines, it’s easy to imagine the speaker is thinking about the afterlife or the past.
We shall sit here, softly
Shall drink our tears.
In the fifth stanza, the speaker repeats the same words that have filled the previous lines. These include “sit” and “softly.” She refers to the possibility that this person, the listener, comes to her, and they sit softly underneath “two different years.” In the space between them, she concludes, the “rich…Shall drink our tears.” This is a dark ending to a curious poem that doesn’t have one clear explanation or interpretation. Readers should ask themselves at the end of these lines how the speaker sees herself and the listener. What are their differences? It’s obvious she’s set them apart from the “rich” in some way.
Additionally, it is important to ask oneself what one thinks the relationship is between the speaker and the listener? Has someone passed away? What does one person know that the other doesn’t?
Readers who enjoyed ‘If You Come Softly’ should also consider reading some of Audre Lorde’s other poems. For example:
- ‘A Woman Speaks’ – describes the conversations between women of different cultures and how the feminist movement might be improved.
- ‘A Litany for Survival’ – describes the lives of those who do not have the luxury to enjoy passing dreams. These people must fight for their survival every day.
- ‘Power’ – is based on a murder and court case in which a police officer was tried for killing a young black man.